copyright 2016 b y Raunig-Graham
We pick up a book for many different reasons at different times. Sometimes, it’s the cover that attracts us. Other times, it’s the subject. Sometimes, it’s purely to escape the humdrum of daily life, to lose ourselves in someone else’s world. Occasionally, we also find ourselves in our reading. That’s what happened to me recently when I read Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970. Nothing happened as dramatic as setting down the book and packing a bag to hop on a plane for France. No, it was simply that Barr’s book put me back in touch with who I was and where I was at that time of my life. The full title of Barr’s book is Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and The Reinvention of American Taste. (Published in 2013 by CLARKSON POTTER/PUBLISHERS, New York)
I have never visited Provence, but French food has long influenced my cooking. The evidence of that is clear on my cookbook bookshelf. Like others of my generation, Julia Child was much in my life when I was young. (Still is.) We watched The French Chef, and we bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” almost before the presses were cold. Larousse Gastronomique figured in as well. I remember how thrilled I was when I first leafed through this tome, awed and inspired by its genius.
What prompted me to borrow Barr’s book from my local library was that it purported to be about a moment in time when Julia Child, her co-author Simone Beck, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, and others of culinary fame, all converged in Southern France that autumn of 1970. There, they ate and drank and dined together in cafes and hotels, and in homes. They cooked and partied and enjoyed great food together. I had reserved the book without really knowing what to expect; I wasn’t disappointed, and I quickly became immersed in its sensual tales.
The stories Barr chose to include (and interpret) in Provence, 1970, reflect a time when each of his celebrated protagonists was in a transition period. Each had already acquired expertise, and each had gained the acknowledgement of same. Consequently, the book was as much about their personalities and philosophies of living as about food, menus and cooking. Perhaps because each of their careers was moving into a new phase, which can cause disorientation, these well-liked luminaries seemed to have engaged in a good deal of sniping — rather unpleasant for an unabashed fan to discover. Their pedestals cracked a bit for me.
Nevertheless, how this heady group worked and played together proved a fascinating read, and I certainly did lose myself in the narrative. (Oh, yes. Baguette and Cafe au Lait every morning for breakfast in the Summer of 1965.) The group’s parties reminded me of some I had attended. (Oh, yes, fondue in 1968. A fondue pot was a popular wedding gift in the late 1960’s.) Restaurants? (The first time I ate frogs’ legs in 1972. To my untrained palate, they tasted something like chicken.) Craig Claiborne, the New York Times restaurant critic? (I consulted him regularly.)
Then there was the cooking, the attempts to express a personal style and perhaps a need to outdo one another. Details of some of those feasts and intimate dinners in France are preserved in archived letters that Barr discovered and shared with us. (As I read, a memory of my own first Cassoulet popped into my head. It had to be about 1973 or 1974 when my nephew lived nearby while he embarked on a master’s degree in engineering.)
Life in the United States, and in France as the decade of the 1970’s opened, was going through profound change. Society’s mores were in transition and Barr deftly referred to some of the movements that affected everyone in one way or another then, including me. In terms of eating habits, whole food and organically grown food, and vegetarianism, were beginning to attract attention. Those interests eventually culminated a few years later in a desire for a healthier diet.
Today, we take good food, even great food, for granted in this country, as well as a vibrant, two or three-star, or sometimes even better, restaurant scene. Celebrity chef shows on television are nearly as numerous as the detective shows that entertain us. We tend to forget that this wasn’t always the case, or how it came to be.
M.F.K. Fisher was Luke Barr’s great aunt. He explains in his prologue that as a child he visited and ate in her California home, where she finally retired and wrote. He tackled his subjects in Provence, 1970 with an insider’s authority, but also with verve, and a reverence, I felt, for his great aunt. Apparently, he also followed-up that partial knowledge of the food scene back then with voluminous research.
Barr’s contention seemed to be that these few culinary giants whose personalities and foibles he shared with us were largely responsible for the changing American palate. That seems a bit overstated to me. After all, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s represent a period of time in which many young Americans traveled widely and sampled the foods of other cultures.
Nor was the American diet completely devoid of “taste” in the 1950’s. In my own childhood, my mother prepared artichokes for our family table. Anchovies, avocados, and grilled trout appeared regularly on the menu. She also cooked sweetbreads. A large garden in our back yard provided fresh vegetables throughout the summer months. My dad made head cheese and blood sausage, and he once spoke of the pigeon soup, and dandelion stew, that he had cooked earlier in his life. Finally, I distinctly remember an outing with my parents when they drove into the country to pick mushrooms. Obviously, a lot of Americans ate more than jello salads and processed cheese in the 1950’s.
The stories Barr told in his Provence, 1970, give us an intriguing and very human picture of a handful of personalities who clearly influenced our eating habits through several decades. They became household names in the field of cooking in the U.S. and beyond; they deserve the minute attention he gave them. After reading his book, I felt grateful to Luke Barr for providing details that prompted my own memories of a time when the American dining experience was in flux.
Lose yourself in a book; find yourself in a book.